In this psychological thriller, a sleep-deprived cop is pitted against a cold-hearted, manipulative killer in a twisted game of cat-and-mouse--with the blinding Midnight Sun of Alaska as the backdrop.
Will Dormer (Al Pacino), a veteran L.A.P.D. detective, and his partner, Hap (Martin Donovan), are sent to a small Alaskan town to investigate the disturbing murder of a 17-year-old girl. Dormer is sent in not only for his expertise, but it is also gives him a chance to hide from an Internal Affairs issue back in Los Angeles, an issue Hap is involved with as well. Dormer is indeed good at what he does, and with the help of an untested but highly perceptive local cop, Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), he and Hap zero in on a suspect--the reclusive novelist Walter Finch (Robin Williams). During a tense stakeout on a rocky and fogged-in beach, Finch manages to escape, but in the chase, Hap is ''accidentally'' killed. Dormer is now haunted by Hap's death and under the white glare of the unending Alaskan summer nights, the grizzled cop is unable to sleep--and Finch knows it. He forces Dormer into a secret and malevolent pact, intent on getting away with his own ''accidental'' murder. Meanwhile, Ellie is starting to figure it all out, as the dangerously sleep-deprived Dormer gets increasingly entangled in Finch's web of manipulation that threatens his very own stability.
The real question is can funny guy Williams pull off being a truly nasty guy? Well, of course he can. The Julliard-trained actor is able to create the quietly malevolent Finch because that's his job. He's an actor, even if his comedic talents far outweigh his dramatic ones (remember, folks, he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor playing a very serious therapist in Good Will Hunting). Yet, Williams' performance isn't what drives Insomnia; it only adds a little flavor. The film belongs to Pacino--a very weather-beaten Pacino. His Dormer makes you tired just by looking at him and the actor does a nice job falling apart before our eyes. The problem is you can see Pacino acting. The subtlety required isn't really there, as it is with some of the supporting players. Swank takes a thankless part and makes it memorable (you can see those wheels turning in Ellie's head) and Maura Tierney, as the night-shift lodge manager who forms an attachment to Dormer, manages to convey a loneliness that equals Dormer's. But, honestly, whatever happened to that introspective actor who gave us the chilling Michael Corleone?
Aside from the performances, the real hero of Insomnia is director Christopher Nolan. In the follow-up to his unique independent film Memento, Nolan chooses to remake a 1997 Norwegian thriller about two cops investigating a murder in a small, wintry town and this time around, the British director gets to work with some heavy hitters like Pacino and Williams (who no doubt saw Memento and couldn't wait to work with Nolan). Regardless of the big budget, Nolan's quirky sensibilities are still evident in Insomnia. The story could have been a run-of-the-mill detective story where one hardened cop, afflicted with a debilitating problem, goes after a psycho killer, but instead the film twists the genre around. We know who the killer is, pretty much right away, but it's how Finch and Dormer enter into this unholy pact which makes the film fascinating. Nolan also blends the rugged and somewhat unforgiving landscape intricately within the plot. It could have been slightly more chilling than it is, but no matter, it's still a job well done.
Although not as creepy as you might think, Insomnia still manages get inside your head. And yes, Robin Williams can play a bad guy.